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Sometimes I think what will be written on my headstone when I die is She had a lot of faith. As Roman Catholic raising Jewish children, I spend a lot of my time in houses of worship—three hours in the synagogue on Saturdays and an hour at Mass on Sundays—preparing for and celebrating holidays, and talking about God and religion with my friends and family.
The truth is I love it. I love being Catholic and I love that my family is Jewish. I am by no means a religious expert or theologian. I have studied Judaism for the past twelve years since I met my husband and as much as I have learned, I do feel like I have barely scratched the surface. Once when I was talking with a (Jewish) friend, trying to understand the differences between the Jewish denominations, he finally said the different denominations are about five minutes old in the span of Judaism, and I should not worry about the difference between a Conservative Jew and a Reconstructionist Jew. He told me to study the Jewish holidays, interpret them for my family, and all will be well.
I am sure some would take exception to that advice, but it has worked for me all these years. I cannot expound on all facets of Jewish religion, tradition, and customs, but I have found my way living a Jewish life with my family. I am grateful for all of my teachers along the way, my children’s preschool, their Jewish summer camp, our synagogue, great friends, and resources on Interfaithfamily.com. And I cannot forget the secretary at my church who recommended the mohel we used for my son’s
My son is eight years old and my daughter is six. I am happy to share that they are thriving in all aspects of their humanity, they are healthy, they are socially agreeable, and self-identify as Jews. They know I am not Jewish and love me anyway. Last year when William was seven and Sarah was five, we took them to our local mikveh to be officially converted. Of course some lines of Judaism recognize patrilineal descent, but it was important to us to have them officially converted for their Jewish legitimacy to be recognized by most modern denominations.
On the appointed day, William and Sarah went through the ritual immersion for Jewish conversion at the Community Mikveh in Wilmette, Illinois. One at a time, they entered the small holy pool and immersed their whole bodies under the water three times. After each immersion, a prayer was said by the beit din (rabbinic court officiating the ritual) blessing them into the Jewish religion.
William and Sarah loved the experience. My husband and I prepared them for it in advance. The mikveh is a special place. The water is the most special water you will ever feel on your skin. You will be sealed with God’s grace in a very special way. Enjoy it; savor it because it will be a long time before you can go into a mikveh again.
Enjoy it they did. Sarah went first and made us promise she can come back again one day. William dunked himself at least six times. He treaded water. He swam around. He stayed in as long as he could.
I just learned yesterday that if you text a member of the opposite sex the word “Heyy” with two “y’s” you are in a relationship. Three “y’s” means you are married, one is only friends. I guess my husband and I are only friends because he only gets one “y.” While there was a certain amount of awkward joking about the subject, what I was learning was that my oldest son (in middle school) was starting to think that girls didn’t have cooties and that he might want a girlfriend, at some point, not now he quickly reassured me.
The girl he has a crush on is cute and she seems nice enough. I am pretty sure she is not smart enough for him, but she has enough spunk to put him in his place. I like her sense of humor and her unique style. BUT, you know there had to be a but, she is not Jewish. Talk about talking out of both sides of your mouth, but I don’t want my baby to date a non-Jew. I think it is so strange that I, of all people, am upset that he might want to marry a non-Jew. I actually sort of have this vehement need to demand that he does not marry a non-Jew. There might be a little foot stamping and room sending as well. Guess I have more in common with my Jewish elders that I thought.
I asked Mac about how he felt about dating a non-Jew. His response was that he was not likely to marry this girl. True. That there are not a lot of Jewish girls running around here in the epicenter of Christianity. True. That his father didn’t think it was important enough to marry a Jewish girl and their kids have turned out alright. True. That said, I feel like all the hard work and sacrifice I have made is really for nothing if it does not go further than my own kids. These kids need to create more Jewish kids. (This raises a whole issue of what sort of Grandma I will be, but I am too young and sassy to address that.)
We talked a bit more about whom he might want to marry. He said that he didn’t really care what religion she was, but he did want the kids to be raised as Jews. While this was marginally comforting, it did drive home the point that we do need to be extra vigilant in making sure that being Jewish is something important enough that our kids want to pass it on to their kids. This conversation is not over. Mac is just starting to think about girls and he is still really young. I am sure that we will have lots of opportunity to talk about the girls he likes and does not like. I hope that he makes good choices.
I am not sure what we need to do exactly about this, but I continue to try and create as Jewish a household as I can. We celebrate Shabbat weekly, we go to temple on a regular basis and the kids view themselves as Jews. I realize that I cannot make them “love being Jewish,” but I hope that they do. Cuz this non-Jewish mom wants some Jewish grandkids, or else you can just march yourself up to your room.
Can we tolerate one more post about the December Dilemma? I promise to be short. I just want to share with you what my oldest child (he is in 6th grade) did at school recently.
The district has a program called Christmas Sharing where they collect clothes and food for families in our area who are less fortunate. Great program! At our elementary school they call it Holiday Sharing. When our oldest went to middle school we learned that the program is actually called Christmas Sharing. As part of the program they ask the kids to donate money and then they can create an ornament to hang on the Christmas tree. If they donate enough money, food, and clothing Santa will visit the school. Yes, this is middle school.
For obvious reasons my son was upset that all other religions were being excluded. He took it upon himself to write the Principal about the issue. He detailed his concerns. He said that he was uncomfortable donating to a Christian program. That some of the Muslim or Buddhist families in our school might feel the same way. He had questions about who benefited from the program. Was it only Christian families? There might be families of other faiths that need help too.
He told the Principal that he did not have an issue with the motives behind it, but would like to have the public school be more aware that not everyone is Christian and offer more inclusive activities. He detailed some ideas that would be more inclusive. Rather than creating ornaments, perhaps the kids could create holiday/winter pictures that could be hung on the walls in the cafeteria; instead of Santa, how about homework passes or a day with no homework?
Our Principal is great. He asked Mac to participate in the newly renamed committee, Holiday Spirit. It was Christmas Spirit until Mac brought up the issue. He will be the only student on the committee, until now it was compromised entirely of teachers and staff. He will be able to talk about ideas that will make things more inclusive. The Principal has invited Mac to attend a meeting with the Superintendent and the local churches to discuss renaming Christmas Sharing to Holiday Sharing.
Mac is beginning to work towards creating a world that is more tolerant and understanding, more inclusive to people who are not Christian. Not only is this a proud parenting moment, it proves that in spite of everything, our child is a Jew.
Spin the dreidels, light the menorahs, it is Hannukah time. When we announced that Saturday was the first night of Hannukah, the kids dropped their electronic gadgets, stopped texting their friends, and cleaned the table off. Everyone was so excited to start the celebration.
What, your calendar says that Hannukah is still a couple of weeks off? Well, because Hannukah coincides with our trip to California to celebrate Christmas with my family we are doing it early. We have always played loose with the dates for Hannukah. When our kids were really small we made the decision to celebrate each holiday on its own. We felt that by making each event stand on alone, it would eliminate the competition between the two.
The agreement Bob and I reached before we got married was that we would celebrate Christmas with my family but not in our house. We have violated this one year when we didn’t have the time or resources to go to my family’s home. We had a very low key celebration at our house. I am not sure what we will do when my mother is no longer with us, and I don’t like to think about that.
At first I was disappointed about this. I fought it, and tried to put up a tree and decorations. Now, I love that we don’t have to worry about putting up lights and decorating a tree. It is one less thing I have to do. When we go to my mom’s the kids can do all the Christmas stuff. I don’t have to try and squeeze it into our schedule. When we are there we can do it without all the other stressors of our lives. The kids get the full experience and I have less work, win/win!
But, back to Hannukah… it was great to watch my kids get over-joyed by lighting the menorah. To actually want to sit down and play dreidel with us, we sure don’t have this response when we suggest family game night. They immediately started in on determining when we would have latkes and who we would invite. Because of the schedule, the idea of donuts for dinner was met with squeals of excitement.
My youngest who is 6, asked about presents. We told her, that because we were doing it early that the only gifts they would get during our Hannukah would be the ones from us. They would still get gifts from everyone else, but they would just come later. We reminded them that they will just get the usual gifts from us. We give money, clothing and an experience. That is it. Last year we swapped out a material gift for an experience. The experiences were a trip to a baseball game, a pony ride and a professional soccer game. It was something each kid got to do with their father, alone. It was very well received.
So, while for most people Hannukah has not started, for us it is almost over. That is ok, because we will leave the “coldest place on earth” and head home to California for two weeks of Christmas. It works for us, what works for you?
I’m going to jump into the whole Christmas/Hanukkah discussion with both feet and with some potentially unpopular views. As someone raised in an entirely Christian household (Catholic mother, Baptist father), I’ve got a lot of history with and feelings about Christmas (mostly good). As Jordyn Rozensky wrote on this website, I associate the holiday above all with family get-togethers. It also makes me think of going home for the holidays, It’s a Wonderful Life, the smell of fresh pine, red and green decorations, frosted cookies, etc., etc. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was something to look forward to because the clergy burned incense, the choir was the biggest and best that night, and everyone was in a good mood.
When my Jewish husband and I got married, celebrating Christmas was never a problem. He himself grew up in an interfaith family (Episcopal mother, Jewish father—I know, I know, not considered “really” Jewish in some quarters, more on that in later blogs) that celebrated Christmas. Even my husband’s “very” German Jewish cousins, not interfaith, celebrated Christmas as their families had done ever since arriving in America in the 1800s. So for years we merrily put up a tree, hung stockings, festooned our apartment, then our house, with angels and elves and reindeer—the whole nine yards—without a care. We also joined a synagogue and raised our children as Jews, which included celebrating Hanukkah. We continue to light candles every night of Hanukkah, and the kids receive presents on the first and last nights.
The problems started when I decided to convert. Our kids were 13, 9, and 4 when I began attending classes. I loved conversion class, loved studying Torah, learning Jewish history and picking up some Hebrew. But then came the night when our coordinator brought up the topic of Christmas, delicately suggesting that we might not want to celebrate it any more and wondering how we would feel about that. One young woman looked distraught, then broke down crying and left. Really, she did. Giving up Christmas was too much for her to contemplate. To be honest, if I’d thought at that moment that I would have to give up Christmas once I converted, I probably would have started crying, too. The truth is, as soon as the coordinator asked us, I knew in a profound way that I couldn’t give it up. Besides, even if my husband and I decided to stop celebrating Christmas, our children would most likely tie us up in tinsel, stuff stockings in our mouths, and carry on without us.
So here we are as the holidays approach, now a completely Jewish family, yet neither entirely one thing or the other. We’re ok with it. But sometimes others aren’t. It’s their reactions that give me pause. Every season it happens: a newer Jewish friend or parent of my child’s friend or a neighbor who knows we are Jewish will give us that hard-edged look, or that telling “oooooh, you have a tree.” I flinch. I resist the urge to explain our background, that I just converted a few years ago, that really we are good Jews, that we go to family school and pray.
This is my current solution: I weasel. We put the tree in the back of the house so it’s not quite so apparent to passersby. We tend not to mention it at synagogue, which is interfaith anyway. We hang white lights, which could technically be regarded as a paean to the winter solstice!
Maybe it’s my inner rebel, maybe it’s my dear departed mother’s voice, maybe it’s just a surrender to overwhelming cultural influences, but I won’t stop celebrating the holiday with a tree and presents. And every Christmas morning, I’m perennially surprised and delighted to find there’s still a little magic left.
As I pulled into the parking lot at the temple, I was amused by the fact that my van, which is being held together by duct tape, string, paper clips and prayer, was parked next to a new Porsche. The juxtaposition of the two vehicles seemed to represent how I felt about going into my son’s
I walked in, saw familiar faces, said some hellos, got my folder, sat down and whipped out my knitting. I knit when I am nervous. The meeting started right on time (odd, I know). The Rabbi asked us to introduce ourselves and tell a story about our experience with Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. I have no story. The only story I have is the one I am telling you all right now. Knit, knit, knit. I messed up the introduction. Knit, knit, knit.
The Rabbi begins to go over everything. He talks about how each ceremony is structured to fit the needs of each child and their family. I am still knitting, but it is slowing. I am starting to feel calmer, or maybe the magnitude of the whole event is just so overwhelming that I am in shock, hard to tell. More talking. Eventually, there is a need for some paper shuffling and I put my knitting away. I am starting to think this is doable. Planning is something I am good at.
Just as the calm is beginning to settle in, the dates are handed out. I am not sure what I expected, but what was printed on that green index card was a shocker for me. I think I expected that the Bar Mitzvah date would be within a few weeks of my son’s birthday, not almost three months later. I am sure that the fact that an actual date makes all of this real also contributed. I was shell-shocked by the information on the card.
I could have requested a date. I didn’t do that. I just figured they would give us the right date. It is two years from now, so really, I don’t have anything scheduled. When I got the date, all the days that would have been bad flooded my mind. The anniversary of my father’s death is in the same month as Mac’s bar mitzvah, but it never occurred to me to request it to not be on that date, it was so far away from Mac’s birthday.
While driving home I called a friend and freaked out a bit. She listened to me go on, and then calmly reminded me that this is G-d’s party and that what will be will be. The people that are important will be there. That this is about more than just dates and the potential for blizzards to cause havoc with travel plans. That in the end, it will be ok, Mac will do great, and everyone who needs to be there will be there. The people that love him will come.
I asked her to remind me of this over the next two years when I am having some sort of cosmic meltdown. I also am laying in a goodly supply of yarn, just in case.
When my husband and I told our kids last weekend that we were going to attend a wedding, they were mildly interested. “Whose?” asked our 12-year-old, barely looking up from the book she was reading. But when we answered with two men’s names, she perked up. “Really? That’s so cool!” Yep, we said, it IS really cool. It was super cool for us, because it was a Jewish wedding in a synagogue close to our home and filled with neighbors, friends and various members of the community.
More than two hundred people gathered to celebrate the marriage of two men who have been devoted to each other for 21 years. They walked down the aisle together, they stood beneath the chuppah together, and best of all, they each broke a glass together! The rabbi did a wonderful job of honoring their relationship and talking about their commitment to each other as a model that any couple–gay or straight–could aspire to.
I have to say it was one of the most joyful events I have ever attended. At one point almost every single person was on the floor dancing while an amazing band played away. There was a couple next to us who appeared to be in their 70s, and my friend and I just jumped gleefully up and down. “This is so fun!” I shouted over the thump of the music. But it was not only fun, it felt liberating, because we all recognized that we were participating in an important event. My favorite moment came when both men danced with their mothers while a friend crooned Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
A sister of one of the grooms delivered the best line of the evening in her toast: “Here’s to the day when we won’t be celebrating a gay wedding, we’ll just be celebrating a wedding.”
We were feeling good after a great Pie Fest, which drew our biggest crowd and most impressive selection ever—including a heavenly homemade key lime pie and a raspberry plum tart. Yum. All those round beauties sitting on our table, each embodying our wish for a New Year that rolls along smoothly. Our first-ever attempt at making pie crust turned out pretty well, even with the minor disaster of placing the lattice-top crust on our peach pie, which we somehow reconnected. (Thank you Cooks Illustrated for the eponymous illustrations!) The forecast had called for rain and wind, but right before our guests arrived the sun’s rays broke through and the kids spent most of the time outside. We went hours over our party time, and by the end we lounged on the floor and sofa, feeling much like we do after Thanksgiving.
While we were making the pies I asked my kids questions that our rabbi and director had suggested: What happened in the last year that you were proud of? What do you wish you had done differently? What are your hopes for the future year? They had some interesting answers, such as, “I’m proud of the way I handled grandma’s sickness and had faith that we would get back to the light as a family” and “I’m proud of how I resolved my fight with my best friend” to “I wish I had given the new kids in my class more of a chance.” Then they asked me, and let me tell you it’s not so easy when the roles are reversed. I think I begged off in the interest of time, with flour flying all around me. I’m still trying to figure out my answers, which Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur have really helped with. In my relatively brief time as a Jew, I’m still getting used to the idea of having the joyful celebration first and the melancholy repentance second, which is almost exactly opposite to the weeks of abstinence of Lent leading up to the good times of Easter. Color the eggs! Break out the chocolate!
On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, as my husband and I were beginning to feel a little woozy from no food, we went on a bike ride with our 7-year-old. That might sound weird, but we needed a distraction and the park isn’t too far from our house. When we got there we went straight for the pond, where we have spent countless hours feeding ducks and geese. The first ominous sign was a dead duck curled up near the fountain where my son loves to play. Then as we walked along the perimeter we heard an odd flapping sound and looked over to see a male mallard caught in fishing wire that was attached to the stone wall surrounding the pond. The wire bound his beak to his chest and wound around one of his wings, which he kept flapping in vain, turning around and around in a small circle. It was a truly heartbreaking sight. My first thought was to find a knife to cut him free and I ran over to some picnic tables, but the only person who looked likely was a dad barbecuing for his family who was using a gigantic cleaver to cut chicken and clearly not eager to hand it over to me. Meanwhile, my husband called the emergency parks number for a ranger to come out and rescue the bird. We figured it might take a while so we headed home, where my husband found a hockey stick and I grabbed some scissors. We drove back to the park and found two families gathered on the banks near the bird, talking about how to save him. My husband and older daughter hooked the stick under the bird’s belly and pulled him gently to the edge, and then quickly cut the line attaching him to the shore. The bird’s beak lifted up, his wings spread and he took off across the pond, just skimming the surface. The families clapped as the duck joined his buddies on the other side, and then watched as he swam by us again. Then we all noticed the same thing: a small piece of wire remained looped around the duck’s beak. We hadn’t completely freed him. The duck slowly circled the pond, rubbing his beak against stone and reeds. Just then a police car drove up—turns out the ranger wasn’t on call—and talked to us. He said he’d leave a message for the ranger on Monday, and there was nothing he could do. We were impressed the officer showed up at all, and held out some hope that the duck would be able to rub off the wire eventually before it starved. But at the same time we felt disappointed that our best efforts hadn’t been enough to completely liberate the duck. I’m tempted to draw some parallels to starting off the New Year full of hope, trying your best, then realizing along the way that sometimes things just don’t turn out exactly as you want them to. It’s a lesson I learn again and again in a spiral, that all we can do is try our best. We’re definitely going back to the park to try to find our friend, though.
One of the challenges of being an interfaith Jewish family is that at times we find ourselves without a large Jewish family gathering to attend. (Full disclosure: Even with my Irish Catholic upbringing I have long held a fantasy of large, warm, boisterous Jewish family gatherings. I’m not sure where it comes from—movies? books?—but there you go.) A few years ago we were trying to figure out how to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with just the five of us, when our middle child suggested making our favorite pies and inviting a few friends, in keeping with the whole sweet New Year theme. At first she wanted to make it an anti-cake rally, too, complete with a poster of a cake in a red circle with a line through it (she isn’t too fond of cakes, obviously) but we decided in the end to keep it positive and focus on our love of pies. And thus our first annual Rosh Hashanah Pie Fest was born.
After going to morning services and Tashlich on the shores of Lake Michigan, we turned our kitchen into a veritable pie factory. Along with covering our kitchen in flour, smears of butter, and sugar we churned out a fair number of pies, among them apple, lemon meringue, pumpkin, key lime, cherry and blueberry. I have to admit we cheated on the chocolate French silk, buying it from Bakers Square. The hardest part turned out to be the crust, and I ended up buying pre-made crusts from the grocery store after a few failed attempts. I felt a little guilty about doing this, as my mother was an expert baker, who had learned the art of making pastry crust from her mother, whose own mother was a cook in the Duke of Norfolk’s kitchen (more on that in later blogs). We laid out the pies on tables in our backyard and had about ten people over, most of whom brought even more pies. It was lovely. The kids ran around, laughing and playing (and hyped up on sugar!), a wonderful sound. We ended up sitting around our outdoor fire pit, stuffed with all the different pies and feeling that we had done our part to start the New Year off as sweetly as possible. Every year Pie Fest has grown a little larger, and this year—our fourth—we’re expecting about thirty guests. I’m going to try my hand at the crust once again, this time using a recipe that our cantor suggested. We’ll see how it goes. L’Shana Tova!
My kids just walked in the door. The boys are laughing and retelling stories of their afternoon and laughing some more. As they grab something to eat, they both agree that they love to go to Religious School. Assembly was so much fun this week, they tell me. The Rabbi is hysterical.
Jewish education is part of developing a strong Jewish identity. I was always uncertain about how the kids would respond to what seemed to me to be “extra” school. But the Educator does a great job making it fun for everyone. This is great, because our belief is that unless you are sick, you are going to Religious School. My husband and I do not generally let the kids miss for social events.
The problem is soccer, which is almost religion in our household. Our kids play soccer every single day, even in the snow. They kick the ball in the house, in spite of the fact that I tell them not to kick the ball in the house. Last winter, our middle son started to play on the local travel team. The travel team uses fields that are not available on Saturday mornings, so games are generally played on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
Can you guess what the conflict is? Do we as good Jewish parents let our kids miss Religious School to play soccer? Do we let the one kid who would die on the sword for soccer miss occasionally to do the one thing he truly loves? As the schedules were being determined for the soccer season, we request no practice on Wednesday. We ask for no games on Sunday mornings. But this isn’t always feasible.
We agree that it is important for the kids to develop a strong Jewish foundation and going to Religious School is part of creating a Jewish identity, it is also important to consider the whole child. Right now my kids like to go to Religious School. They understand the importance of going. We recognize that “making” them go when they might want to do something else could cause resentment.
Granted it is a slippery slope: miss a day for soccer and another for a play date, what if soccer practices conflict with Wednesday Religious School, everyone is too tired from the week, when does it stop? We walk a fine line maintaining the importance of obtaining a religious education/identity and living our lives in modern society. We work hard to keep that balance for our kids. This Sunday, while our youngest and oldest are in Religious School, our soccer player will be on the soccer pitch stopping goals. (He promised to study his Hebrew extra hard this week and to get the assignments he will miss so that he will be prepared.)